Breaking through the January (creative) blahs

Got the January blahs? In this post, Anne explores some practical strategies to pull yourself out of a creative rut, get your project back on track, and make good on those productive New Year's resolutions.
January 13, 2014


I love New Year’s a bit more than I should. The idea of a fresh start, an opportunity to do better, to try harder, to accomplish more, and a firm date on which to begin doing so appeals to me endlessly. Each year, I think up my resolutions, party hard on New Year’s Eve, and then kick into high gear.

I have a million new projects I want to start, ideas I want to prototype, stories and characters I want to crack, and games I want to investigate. I’m going to be more productive than ever before, I’m certain, and I start in on industriously pursuing my goals, which goes great… for a week or two.

Then, I get the blahs. The writer’s block, the ennui, the feeling of hopelessness that I’ve decided to do all of these huge things and I have no idea how to actually accomplish them. I’ve talked to several colleagues in the past week or so who have been having a similar experience. So I’m sharing this week some tips and tricks for designers and writers looking to get un-stuck if you’re frozen in a creative rut.

Take It One Step at a Time

If I had to list the top creative peril that prevents myself and other creative people I know from getting things done, it’s feeling like everything has to be perfect and complete to be considered an accomplishment. Setting small, realistic goals, whether it’s investigating and thinking through a mechanic, writing one page worth of a design doc, or even doing a far from perfect draft of your blog post (ahem!), gives an inroad to what may at a glance feel like an unmanageable task. Any project, and any single step in that project, is always going to start small, so set those incremental guideposts first and celebrate the little achievements that go into making something much larger.

Go Out and Play

If you’re banging on a game idea (or any other kind of idea for that matter), there’s nothing worse than starting at a blank page, and nothing less likely to get you started actually writing. I often find that the best way for me to think about game designs is to go play something else. I download a bunch of things to my phone or my Steam account, mess around a bit, and let myself go with the flow. (Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with Steam, you should check it out. It’s a terrific online store where you can download thousands of games straight to your computer – great for inspiration!). I almost always emerge with new ideas. Playing games, especially ones with a similar mechanic or genre as the one you’re working on, can serve the dual purpose of inspiring your design and informing you about the competition. Bonus – its fun!

Copy Something You Like

Ok, let me be clear upfront that I don’t mean you should actually copy someone else’s idea. But I have found that literally writing down my own synopsis of another game, show, or story can be a great first step towards finding a new creative direction for my own work. I’ll superimpose whatever half baked idea I have on the form of the reference material, tweaking all of the bits of the original that don’t fit my own, making changes to elements that I’m not crazy about, pushing improvements I’d make, etc., and by the time I’m done I’ve often got an entirely new idea. Also, successful games tend to be well designed, and you can learn from those brilliant designers by really digging deep into their work and trying to understand it from the inside out.

So if you love Candy Crush, for instance, write down all of the things you like about it, investigate how it’s structured, really dig into how it’s designed (and, as Carla wrote about, you can also go deep on its business model). Then write your own version, making the changes you’d like to make. You may find, by the time you’ve copied something and made the changes that you want to make, you’ve found the jumping off point for a brand new idea.

Don’t Be Afraid to Write the Bad Version            

People I work with regularly hear me say the following all the time: “Okay, so the bad version of this idea is…” followed by some stupid, unhelpful thought about the thing we’re trying to make. For example, “The bad version of this plot is a story about a bear who thinks a little girl is his mother,” or, “The bad version of this is a game where you’re playing tennis against someone with ten hands,” or, “The bad version of this idea is a kid who snuck out of his house to meet his buddies and figured out that all the grownups in the town are actually zoo animals in disguise.”

Even if you know it’s not the idea you want, throwing out a tangible idea – even a bad one – can be a great segue to finding the version of the idea you do want to make. This is the first step of iteration, which is key to any good design. Don’t be afraid of exploring ideas, and then be diligent about investigating and improving them. And come to think of it, I actually kind of like all of those bad ideas!

Ask for Help

Nothing is better for my writer’s block than talking through my ideas with someone else. It can be almost anyone (I’ve tried it on my five year-old, who is weirdly kind of helpful), but a trusted colleague or creative peer is ideal. You may well find that your ideas are better formed than you think once you go express them to someone else, and at minimum having an intelligent person ask you questions about them will help you find holes in your ideas or new ways to move forward.

Remember, Done is Better than Perfect

Getting back to where I began, having crazy, un-accomplishable goals is no way to make yourself do much of anything. It’s something we learn in planning production sprints and cycles all the time — consistently failing to meet your own expectations is demoralizing and ultimately encourages you to give up on the big picture rather than fight harder to accomplish it. So there comes a point in every creative task, whether it’s drawing up a single level design or producing a multi-hour console game, where it’s time to say you’re done, and the work that you’ve done is good enough.

For most of us, perfection is a goal, but we know it’s not a realistic one. So know when to pat yourself on the back, put down your pen, and stop trying to come up with the next Angry Birds. It’s the same attitude I’m taking towards my expectations in general for 2014. Sure, I’d love to be a perfectly fit, healthy eating, better living, zen guru as much as the next person. But I’ll start with bringing lunch to work twice a week and take it from there.

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